Recent incidents related to the policy, practice and quality in pharmaceuticals might have deterred young graduates from entering the field or caused some practitioners to reconsider their career options.
In fact, as pointed out by Kara Cheung, head of patient access, Asia Pacific, Novartis Oncology, anyone holding a degree in pharmacy should consider the qualification a career advantage that opens doors to a wide range of opportunities.
Ms Cheung spent the first two years of her career working as a pharmacist with a retail outlet in the US. The job was not much and she felt the urge to move on and achieve more. Her career eventually took off as she did on a plane back to Hong Kong in 2000.
Shortly after settling down here she landed a job as a medical information associate for a pharmaceutical company, with the primary duty of selling the company's products. That's when she received her first piece of practical career advice. "A colleague advised me the quickest way to understand the local market needs is to become a sales representative," she recalls. "I believe this theory can apply to many jobs in many industries."
With the burning ambition of a trained pharmacist, Ms Cheung felt the responsibility to provide necessary information to medical practitioners and doctors. Even though she was assigned to handle business with clinics and medical centres in Central CBD where many specialists have their offices, there weren't many opportunities for her to fully utilise her expertise. She was mainly expected to briefly explain prices and packages, and book sales orders. "I was a bit disappointed with the job but it was an excellent experience because it gave me a crash course in pharmaceutical products in the local context," she says.
"I must always be familiar with local and other countries' rules and regulations on prescriptive medicines"
One year later, an opportunity arose to switch to marketing when the company assigned her to market an anti-hair loss medicine. Ms Cheung jumped at the chance. "The job was interesting because it departed from the usual scientific approach to marketing a lifestyle drug, targeting men who wanted to look better," she says. "I gained a much wider exposure from opportunities to meet doctors, nurses, pharmacists, patients of focus groups, distribution agents, advertising agents and the media."
Within the following three years, Ms Cheung was promoted to product manager. Then came an opportunity to join Novartis, and she grabbed it with both hands. "I was not familiar with the company's products even though I knew the name. Oncology medicine relates to tumours, and this was quite a different field for me. It led to many different issues such as negotiations with a large number of parties including the government. The challenge was to handle things that I had never done before," she says.
How well she succeeded is shown by the fact that last November she took up increased responsibilities as the company's head of patient access for Oncology. Now in a cross-functional role, Ms Cheung continues to extend her expertise by working closely with the company's sales and marketing, government affairs, and global legal departments. Besides monitoring the entire logistics process from manufacturing to distribution as well as medical donations to patients, she also works with the corporate security department to closely monitor the market for any illegal copycat products.
While she works a five-day week, Ms Cheung's days usually start at 9am and end anywhere between 6pm and 9pm. Also, because of time differences across Asia, she is often involved in phone conferences in the evening. "I am on the phone a lot each day, especially now that I am responsible for the entire region that covers countries such as India, Pakistan, mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore," she explains.
However exciting, Ms Cheung's job involves great challenge and substantial stress. At least 13 country visits have been scheduled for this year so far. She also must take notice of changing pharmaceutical regulations in different countries. "I must always be familiar with local and other countries' rules and regulations on prescriptive medicines," she says. "Before taking up this job, I spent two months' intensive study on all these countries' regulatory systems and procedures."
Ms Cheung's background in pharmacy has been a definite asset in her career development but she points out that language skills are also important. "English is the international language. It is particularly important because we're mainly dealing with US and European companies," she says.
Each year, Ms Cheung gives a lecture to students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She believes that career success always lies in a person's mindset and attitude. "People in Hong Kong are generally afraid to raise questions so as to avoid conflicts," she says. She also advises young graduates if they want to broaden their horizons, joining a pharmaceutical company can be a viable career option. "Through this channel, you can be in touch with lots of people and various professions such as PR and marketing. Besides, you can get many opportunities to travel and get to know people and learn about the world."
China today represents challenge and enormous potential but as Ms Cheung points out, there are rules to obey. "The rapid development of such a huge market can lead to many complicated issues," she adds. "Anyone who works there must pay extra attention to details so as to build a solid foundation whatever their business." She believes the demographic situation and the increased awareness of public healthcare can create career opportunities for trained pharmacists. However, she stresses that Hong Kong is still the perfect starting point for developing such a career.